*Not every MGMT song, actually. I’ve ranked songs from the three LPs — Oracular Spectacular (2007), Congratulations (2010), and MGMT (2013) — along with the “Metanoia” single.
- “The Youth,” Oracular Spectacular
Shallow and insipid, this one veers too close to actually endorsing the “hipsters!!!!” zeitgeist of 2008 or thereabouts. The tune’s hummable enough, of course, and there’s a cool modulation a half-step down toward the end of the track.
- “Electric Feel,” Oracular Spectacular
Their club anthem that’s little more than a club anthem, this song likely defines MGMT to untold scores of listeners who grew weary of this disco oddity several years ago but will surely revisit it when nostalgia strikes in 2018, 2028, etc. Fridmann’s production is stellar here, all the clicks and whomps and whirrs arranged perfectly.
- “Pieces of What,” Oracular Spectacular
Here begin the 28 MGMT songs I genuinely enjoy and/or cherish. VanWyngarden lends this song what sounds like his best Mick Jagger impersonation — it’s charming, if rather affected. “They’ve got the city surrounded / As if I needed proof” stays with me, as do the strings in woozy unison near the end.
- “I Found a Whistle,” Congratulations
The slightest song on Congratulations (a very un-slight album) emerges out of the final detonation of “Flash Delirium,” hangs sweetly in the air for several minutes, then fills out into a grand coda highlighted by a descant synth line (the titular Whistle, presumably). The final cadence, on C, appropriately anticipates the opening Am7 of “Siberian Breaks” on the flipside.
- “An Orphan of Fortune,” MGMT
“The signs keep changing on me” perfectly sums up the tricky (if mostly satisfying) third album, with its mysticism and pharmacological bewilderment at life’s infinite strangeness. This weary, hulking track has barely enough fuel to drag itself over the album’s finish line. The stars it sees through its dizziness, however, are beautiful indeed. There’s a vastness lying just beyond the surface if the listener can break through all the sludge and sediment.
- “A Good Sadness,” MGMT
The band has alleged that this is their self-sabotaged pop song, the once-straightforward ditty no longer detectable beneath beneath a mass of careening loops and echoes. I’d be curious to hear the green, unburdened original. While there’s an astral charm in all the clanging and swerving, the track simply does not live up to such an evocative title. I’ve experienced a good sadness: it sounds like other MGMT songs.
- “Mystery Disease,” MGMT
Drone-like and repetitive to a fault, seven verses unfold uniformly against a “Tomorrow Never Knows”-esque backbeat. There’s less variety here than most other MGMT songs, but this is nonetheless a tastefully arranged sonic bouquet. The chiming electric piano is likely its best feature, lending a late-night elegance.
- “Kids,” Oracular Spectacular
It comes down to this: I can still recall the first time I caught that ten-note hook, the buzzing chordal underpinnings, the lyrics — evocative and obtuse for a radio hit — that my roommate solemnly tried to explicate my sophomore year of college. I was a few convoluted tunes away from falling in love with MGMT the fully formed psychedelic ambassadors; now, I’m no farther than one chorus of “Control yourself, take only what you need from it” from returning to that blessedly naive segment of my life. And how many millions feel exactly the same way?
I can be dismissive toward “Electric Feel” if I choose. That’s not the case here. Warm water has been sending me shivers ever since.
- “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” Congratulations
The one and only MGMT instrumental is situated somewhere in the falling action of Congratulations, or else is the denouement of the entire album, the moment where the menace at the heart of the cycle is most clearly glimpsed. A few moments of compressed, synthetic howling, then the storm recedes farther out to sea as our haunted protagonists collapse exhausted on the shore.
- “Weekend Wars,” Oracular Spectacular
On one hand, the song just about epitomizes Oracular Spectacular: the lyrics of restless and disaffected youth, the brash coda delivered in a shout-falsetto. On the other, there’s a levitating power in the brisk arpeggiated synth runs and hissing bass, and the track foreshadows later MGMT in its chromatic fills and flourishes.
- “Your Life Is a Lie,” MGMT
By far the most pointed and direct song on the self-titled, “#YLIAL” repudiates the obscurantism of its nine sibling tracks and tears off on its own path clanging a damn cowbell. But the family resemblance is still there: the harmonic economy and mantra-like repetition of a single rhythm match up with “Mystery Disease” and “I Love You Too, Death,” among others.
(The song also bears a humorous resemblance to Phish’s “Heavy Things,” which would have been a concert staple during the years VanWyngarden was seeing a lot of Phish. Phish even had their own take on the cowbell ostinato: the looped G that bounces overhead during the chorus.)
- “Astro-Mancy,” MGMT
This one’s less Metal Machine Music than a metal music machine, a whirring contraption of a song with a rhythmic texture like hissing steam valves. Its relative changelessness, if not featurelessness, succeeds in focusing the listener’s attention inward, creating a meditative space for the next track’s out-of-body experience.
Indeed, the mechanized stasis is interrupted only twice: in the middle, as a sparse anti-solo exudes a faint warmth, and in the strummed dissolution, as the machine cycles down and we glimpse distant Dark Stars through the parting clouds.
- “4th Dimensional Transition,” Oracular Spectacular
If the first half of Oracular is MGMT’s hedonism cycle, the second half introduces their particular brand of mysticism and previews much of the psych terrain where future albums will thrive. “4th Dimensional Transition,” which leads off the B side, is a true litmus test: with “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids” all dispensed with, who’s still listening?
Those who’ve stuck around are rewarded first with this galloping number in a faux-Eastern mode. Each verse presents a unique structure, giving the song a roving, unsettled feeling, as the signature melodic line diverges three times in three directions. The fourth and final iteration of the melody is hummed serenely at the close of the song, while the rhythmic backing falls away to a sporadic jangle — transition complete?
- “Future Reflections,” Oracular Spectacular
It took me years to fully warm to Oracular’s sanguine closing track because the first 18 seconds implicate a false tonic, which had an alienating effect on this listener. The writhing introduction seems to settle in B-flat, which is a fine, lively key — but then the rest of the song makes no sense! F asserts some unnatural gravity, continuously bending melodic lines in its direction. The next album would show the band modulating effortlessly between keys, so I’ll chalk this bait-and-switch up to ignorance rather than malice.
More recently, when I forced my brain to ignore the intro and tonicize that F, I heard a new MGMT song, lush and teeming with energy and ideas, one of the most exuberant moments on a very warm-blooded album. It’s also evocative of both side A and B of Oracular, and like the famous rug really ties the room together.
- “Plenty of Girls in the Sea,” MGMT
Much like “Brian Eno” on the previous album, this song’s rollicking fun, a comedic genre exercise (as suggested by the lyrics’ explicit signifiers rather than their overall subject) used to lighten the mood following some preceding heaviness. To carry us away from MGMT’s acid-trip ode to death, we are served some down-to-earth relationship advice, presented in the form of a squeaky sea shanty — the band’s “Yellow Submarine,” really.
Harmonically, this is one of only two songs on the third album that find the band writing in dense Congratulations fashion, with a liberal application of tense seventh chords. The bridge section, in particular, is nirvana to fans who enjoy the band’s knottiest creations.